Breezes through Long Cay: Chapter 2

In last week’s Art and Culture feature, Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett shared Chapter One of his travels and thoughts on development and sustainability on Long Cay. This week we follow up with Chapter 2, which expands on his observations. Long Cay holds beauty and tangible history.

A historic town where the old settlement on one side of the island, now covered over with thorny brush, was abandoned and a new settlement sprung up elsewhere. The residents had a sense of self and connection to place that has been wiped off New Providence. We often talk about national pride, yet we fail to show that pride comes from involvement, inclusion and participation.

The people of Long Cay are their community. They are connected to the place and a proud of it. They all want development but are concerned and aware enough to say that they want development where Bahamians are players, it just people who serve as a part of someone else’s dream. Their sense of self was warming, it reminded me of people to whom I had spoken years before, before I knew what sense of self was, but I knew that they were happy and proud of themselves. This was despite the church telling them that their culture was bad and they should not celebrate it.

If we look back over history, the African writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o tell us that the missionaries often come to tell us we are bad or simply lead us to believe that all we have is less than or inferior to what they bring. We quickly discard our culture for assured salvation and access to heaven. Who said colonisation is dead? The beauty of Long Cay was only matched by the peace and quiet contemplation of it and the people. Such warmth, depth and willingness to share are uncommon these days. They had such a full appreciation for their home, but they keenly understood the pains of the past. The torture of class and race was real. The death of a once thriving community, as Mr. Daniel said, was also close to their hearts and clear to our faces. What shocked me was their willingness to talk about their history as well as their deep knowledge of it.

The knowledge of history brings strength and resilience. Is that then why so-called “banana republics” are so void of history? History is quickly vanishing in The Bahamas as buildings fall victim to development and land disappears behind gates, scraped clean and re-scaped so that it resembles the moon and then somewhere else, anywhere but here. Except, in the Southern Bahamas, savagely neglected by the government, the merciless heat and the arid landscape makes life very different.

A scrubby brushland surrounded by beautiful, crystal clear waters gleaming with life, and a good few sharks—to be sure—is what Long Cay offers. It is also a testament to the swiftly changing times. The move from steamships to oil and diesel vessels and the vagaries of changing government – even when a place holds political favour today – tomorrow it can quickly fall into disfavour and for no good reason).

It also shows how fickle life can be, the shift to ‘modern’ technology also helped transform Long Cay from a thriving port city with the historic St. David & St. Augustine’s Church, which is falling into ruin more each day. Father Cartwright had been instrumental in ensuring it survived. The Bonefish flats lay between Crooked Island and Long Cay, and the relatively unspoiled nature is amazing. Bahamian lore and history commingle fabulously on Long Cay. I considered writing about this for months, concerned that it would be changed by exposure.

However, exposure has already occurred; there is a great deal of interest in this place from our neighbours to the north even if Bahamians have mostly forgotten about its existence. Mr. Bruce’s stories can entertain an entire group, and his musical production is mesmerising. This is such an intricate part of Bahamian culture. It is truly tragic, though, that so few young Bahamians will ever understand the importance of Long Cay in Bahamian history and culture. The importance of piloting Long Cay as a part of Bahamian culture and the significance the southern Bahamas played in commerce in the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ cannot be overstated. The Hamburg America Line and Pacific Mail Steamship Company gave Long Cay life as they sought stevedores and pilots there. Sponging and salt were big industries. History does still reside fully in the Southern Bahamas, notwithstanding the lack of love and care showered on it by the government.

The Church, the ruins, the roads, the streetlamps all speak to a city that thrived once upon a time. This is the history of a culture almost lost to progress, let us attempt to hold on to it. Sadly, we cannot put it into a museum and culture and art is always developing, transforming and changing. However, if we keep this in the Commons, ensuring that it does not fall victim to speculators, high-end gated community builders, and developers who wish to erect walls and barriers on islands with tiny populations.

Why would we sell yet another inhabited island to a resort company and wipe out the culture that thrives there? Our culture is amazing, but it is most certainly under threat. The threat is not about progress, but about destroying the Bahamian space and place, such as exemplified on Long Cay, and replacing this life with international tourist destination culture. Long Cay may not have the UNESCO cultural thrust and power of San Salvador, but it has such a rich, deep history that it should be celebrated and cultivated. Like the Lighthouse on San Salvador, and Crooked Island boasting the first Post Office in the country, there are bits of tangible history everywhere; this tangible history creates and holds the intangible history. When we erase the tangible history, we tend to destroy so many aspects of the intangible.

As the breezes wash over us, we must be aware of the richness of our past on these apparently far-flung and, for some, ‘unnecessary’ islands. We cannot decrease the physical distance between our islands, but we can work to celebrate our culture and understanding that each island, each community has a special place in Bahamian culture and history. Long Cay is extremely important to the Bahamian past and so the present, let us hope that it does not become another walled in gated enclave where folks go to buy up Bahamian land at prices beyond most Bahamian pockets.